During the early 1990s IBM investigators decided to explore the capabilities of an atomic-scale imaging device called an atomic-force microscope. They looked for defects in the small holes that represent digital bits on the surface of a CD-ROM. The testing process revealed that the nickel mold that was used to make a CD-ROM had a defect, a tiny bump less than a few hundred nanometers in height. Everyone in the laboratory nicknamed it a zit. C. Grant Willson, a fellow at IBM, marveled at how the mold produced an exact replica of the defect in disk after disk. The metal pimple served as an inspiration of sorts. As he looked at the atomic-force image, Willson mused that this ability to create perfectly formed nanostructures might portend an entirely novel method of making small things.
That insight led him to become one of several pioneers who may turn nanotechnology from hyperbole into technological reality. Willson and other leading researchers at Princeton University, Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology have begun to commercialize molding, stamping, printing and embossing methods reminiscent of children's toys or industrial processes used by automakers. Eventually these endeavors may transform the manufacturing of devices used by the semiconductor, telecommunications and biomedical industries.
This article was originally published with the title Breaking the Mold.